The single most studied artifact in human history is a tattered piece of cloth, the Shroud of Turin. This cloth is thought to have wrapped the beaten and crucified body of Jesus. It is an object of such veneration and fragility, that it is rarely displayed publicly.
I have a sacred piece of cloth — it’s a fringed prayer shawl called a Tallis, which is worn by Jewish adults in the synagogue during prayer. My first one was given to me at my Bar Mitzvah by my father. It was one of the few belongings he brought with him when he escaped from Nazi Germany in 1936; it’s now frayed and fragile; there are holes it. I gave it to my new son at his wedding eighteen years ago. I knew he would give it to his son, if and when he had one, and imagined what that would be like.
Last Friday night, my son gave it to his son during the Sabbath welcoming ceremony. He told him the story about how he received it. Then I told him his great-grandfather had given this Tallis to me on my Bar Mitzvah; he had said it was proof that the Nazi’s could not take everything from him. They could take all his possessions, but they could steal his future.
I said to my grandson, “I’m telling you the same story today. Don’t forget where you come from. Tomorrow you will be called to the Torah wearing his Tallis; I want you to remember your relatives who are not here, because you speak for those on whose ashes you stand and whose mouths are still open but cannot speak for themselves.”
Yesterday when he approached the Torah, both his grandfathers placed the tattered shawl on his shoulder, and when I chanted the Hebrew blessing, I felt my father’s presence and reached out my hand to his head and heard my father’s voice blessing him too.
What binds us together as families and tribes are the ceremonies and rituals through which we transmit the soul of our being from generation to generation. It is through our stories, and the tattered shrouds that hold our memories, that we transmit sustaining wisdom.